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High Society (1956)

Just a short 16 years following the Grant-Hepburn-Stewart classic, The Philadelphia Story, from director George Cukor came this musical rendition utilizing the star power of Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra assuming the roles of 1940’s big three.

Rather than compare the film that won Jimmy Stewart his one and only Oscar for Best Actor with this version from director Charles Walter, let’s focus on the musical version that sees Bing and Frank sharing a song or two with Louis Armstrong joining in on the fun.

Armstrong kicks things off with a rendition of the title song, High Society, as he and his band are headed to the palatial estate belonging to Crosby for a jazz festival. Crosby is playing a songwriter who just happens to be a smooth singer on the side. At the estate just next to Bing’s is the family home of Grace Kelly who just happens to be Bing’s ex. She’s prepping for a wedding gala. One where she’ll be exchanging vows with John Lund who’s been relegated to the Ralph Bellamy role once removed.

While Grace harbors resentment against her ex-hubby, Bing, her little sister played by Lydia Reed has a crush on the musical icon and would like nothing better than to see Grace and Bing patch things up and remarry. Bing himself is in total agreement as he’s still stuck on Princess Grace and fully intends to show up at the wedding, “I expect to pitch a little rice on the side.” Needing a plot device to get Frank into the script, Grace’s uncle played by Louis Calhern invites Spy Magazine to attend the wedding for a photo shoot and feature in an upcoming edition. Paging writer Frank Sinatra and his trusty gal Friday, Celeste Holm.

That makes 4 Oscar winners turning up in this jazzy redux. Bing for Going My Way, Celeste for Gentleman’s Agreement, Frank for From Here To Eternity and Grace for the recent Country Girl (opposite Bing).

One look at Grace and Sinatra gets caught up in her beauty but isn’t so sure about her sanity. Grace isn’t exactly overjoyed that Spy Magazine has turned up on her doorstep but she’ll come around to liking Frank and Celeste before long dropping the eccentric act she’s been putting on. Poor John Lund keeps being pushed further into the backdrop with Frank in the house and Bing hanging around the edges of the property. We’ll even get a flashback to happier times between Bing and Grace with a song for good measure. There’s a great line in here from Grace considering what the future held in store for this cinematic beauty, “I don’t want to worshipped. I want to be loved.”

Speaking of songs, the highlight of the film for me isn’t the well timed duet that sees Frank and Bing musically sparring but that of Bing belting out the tune, That’s Jazz, accompanied by Armstrong and his band. Feast your eyes…..

Still to come is the champagne flowing heavily, the Bing-Frank duet and Sinatra’s falling for (not from) Grace. The morning after is going to leave some questionable indiscretions and hangovers. Has Grace spent the night with Sinatra on the eve of her wedding? Is Lund going to forgive the supposed transgression with Ol’ Blue Eyes? Is Bing going to slide right on in and reclaim the woman he still carries a torch for? Well I guess if you’ve seen the original black and white edition you’ll already have the final reel figured out. If not then maybe give each version a look.

One thing we can be sure of with this rendition of the play originally written by Philip Barry is that Louis Armstrong is going to jazz things up for the fade out with some hip and swinging music.

Plenty of connections can be made here with the first being the re-teaming of Bing and Grace. They’d just scored a major success starring in 1954’s The Country Girl that gave Kelly her Oscar and scored a nomination for Bing in a straight dramatic role with no hint of a Bob Hope barb. Sinatra and Holm had starred opposite each other in The Tender Trap for director Walters just prior to this release. Walters directed a number of musicals. Among them, Easter Parade, Summer Stock and The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

I’ve always looked upon this film as a passing of the torch from Bing to Frank when it comes to the history of music but not having lived through the era I’m not sure if that’s how it was looked upon at the time. Truth is I prefer Bing over Frank from a singing standpoint. Don’t get me wrong. I still like Frank’s singing but prefer Bing’s if given a choice. Frank would take a cameo in Bing’s final Road picture to Hong Kong and Bing would make an appearance in the Rat Pack’s Robin and the Seven Hoods two years late in 1964.

High Society proved to be the final film in the careers of both Grace Kelly and Louis Calhern. She famously married into royalty thus retiring from the screen while Louis Calhern died suddenly on location in Japan while filming The  Teahouse of the August Moon. His role was recast Paul Ford.

With music credited to Cole Porter and Bing, Frank and Louis carrying the tunes, this one’s well worth a look even if it didn’t win any Oscars compared to the two wins ( Stewart and David Ogden Stewart’s screenplay) and four nominations The Philadelphia Story received back in 1940. Looking for a copy of this splashy MGM release? Shouldn’t be too hard to find on DVD as part of a Frank Sinatra series that Warner Brothers released to home video.

 

15 Comments »

  1. Not as good as the original The Philadelphia Story, but still quite fun. My Mom adores this film as Grace Kelly is one of her favorite actresses (Audrey Hepburn is her other favorite), and she likes the songs too. I always thought her marriage to Prince Rainer was a mistake and recently info’s come up to prove she was planning on leaving him. Makes you wonder 🤔

  2. I vary in my preference for the this and The Philadelphia Story. Sometimes I feel the original has the edge, and at other times I think this might just shade it – Bing and Frank and Did you Evah makes for one of those sublime movie moments that occasionally occur.
    To be honest though, I’ll change my mind on the two films depending on the day, my mood and so on. Anyway, I find I’m less interested in comparing movies as the years pass – if they entertain me on their own terms, then I’m happy.

    And Merry Christmas to you and the family, Mike.

    • A good choice for the festive season which was my thinking exactly with the Mrs. here at home. As for dancing, I find a lot of the Bing and Frank musicals are not on a grand scale vs. a Gene Kelly effort though of course Frank starred alongside him in some memorable movies.

  3. The lack of elaborate dancing numbers at first feels odd, but I think they were going for a certain classy 50’s feel and it works perfectly here. I did spit out some cider a few months back though, when a friend watching this on my recommendation called me said there should be a modern remake (set during the 50’s) where the trumpet player gets the gal, who decides to drop the two other guys (the lady likes to poke at some films I recommend to her and her husband – she likes them all, but she’ll hot take stuff from time to time).

    • Louis walks away with the gal. Would have been great but oh so daring in 50’s Hollywood. Great gag though much like the ones when Bing turns up in a Bob Hope flick at the end to claim the gal in ….. no won’t spoil it for you but it’s a great Bob Hope picture of the 40’s.

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